MIAMI -- As Southern California alumnus and ABC broadcaster Lynn Swann brought Matt Leinart to the microphone on the podium at Pro Player Stadium early yesterday morning after the top-ranked Trojans crushed Oklahoma, 55-19, in the Orange Bowl, the fans who remained sent a message to their favorite quarterback.
"One more year! One more year!" USC fans chanted.
It was an uncomfortable spot for the redshirt junior who had looked so assured in shredding the then-No. 2 Sooners for an Orange Bowl-record five touchdowns and 332 yards to lead the Trojans (13-0) to this year's Bowl Championship Series national title. After getting booed for saying he had yet to make up his mind about coming back, Leinart tried to appease the faithful.
"It's going to be hard to leave," Leinart told the crowd. "To do a three-peat, I don't think that's ever been done."
Regardless of whether this season's Heisman Trophy winner returns for his senior year, USC established itself as the team to beat for next season -- and beyond. Minus the bravado on the field, the Trojans have become the Miami of this generation, a program so dominant it has separated itself from the other elite teams in Division I-A.
After completing its first unbeaten, untied season since 1972 and earning the 11th national championship in school history, USC will take a 22-game winning streak into next season. Unlike last year, when the Trojans shared the national championship with LSU, there is nobody else who can make the claim of being the best team in the country.
Not Auburn, despite its 13-0 record that included a less-than-impressive win over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Not Utah, despite its 12-0 record that included thrashing less-than-formidable Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. And certainly not Oklahoma, which finished another 12-1 season with another loss in the BCS championship game.
But Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops wasn't buying into the theory that USC was that far out in front of this race.
"They're a great team and they have excellent talent, but I think year in and year out, you have stretches in time when there are other people who have done it, and there are other people who have talent as well," said Stoops, whose Sooners self-destructed with five turnovers, including four in the first half when USC took a 38-10 lead. "There's a lot of great players out there around the country."
But in four seasons at USC, Carroll has amassed the kind of talent and depth rarely seen since the NCAA instituted the 85-scholarship limit.
Despite losing his two top receivers from last season, including All-American Mike Williams, Carroll found Dwayne Jarrett, a 6-foot-5 freshman who scored 12 touchdowns during the regular season and added a 54-yard touchdown against the Sooners among his five catches for a game-high 115 yards.
But Jarrett wasn't even Leinart's main target Tuesday night. Sophomore Steve Smith, who missed much of the season with a broken leg, had seven catches for 113 yards and three touchdowns. Junior tight end Dominique Byrd caught three balls, including a spectacular one-handed grab for a 33-yard touchdown.
With Oklahoma intent not to let sophomore tailback Reggie Bush dominate, the Trojans went more to another sophomore, LenDale White, who after missing most of the pre-game workouts because of an ankle sprain rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries.
"These guys, myself even, we're so young," said Leinart, who was a relative unknown when he replaced Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer at the start of last season. "This is supposed to be the biggest game, but like Coach says, it really feels like another game when the whistle blows. We're just doing our plays, nothing special, just executing what we're doing all season."
It wasn't just the offense that dominated. The defense, ranked in the top 10 nationally in every category used by the NCAA, clogged the inside and never allowed freshman phenom Adrian Peterson (25 carries for 82 yards) to get going. The Trojans intercepted 2003 Heisman winner Jason White three times.
"It was a great test for us, but it wasn't too much for us to handle, obviously," Carroll said.
The Trojans won't have to rebuild much, just reload. On offense, the only starters who won't be back are fullback Lee Webb and tight end Alex Holmes, who shared the position with Byrd. USC will have to replace several key players on defense, including tackle Shaun Cody and linebacker Matt Grootegoed.
"We've got a real nice team coming back," Carroll said. "We're going to be a real hard team to beat if we continue to do the things we do."
If anything, losing Leinart might be less harmful than losing offensive coordinator Norm Chow. Considered the guru of offensive assistants in the country, Chow recently was passed over in favor of Pittsburgh coach Walt Harris at Stanford. The Trojans have several talented players ready to step in if Leinart turns pro.
"We lost a Heisman-winning quarterback when Carson left, and we've been through a lot of situations like this," Carroll said. "We want to play with Matt next year. We'd love to have him back. ... But the program is bigger than one guy."
Said Leinart: "It's hard not to think about, because so many people are saying this and that, but I've stuck true to my word all season. I still plan on coming back. It's going to take a lot for me to leave."
One thing is clear: It won't take as much for the Trojans to stay on top of the college football world.
Going for three
USC will try to become the first school to win three straight national titles in the Associated Press football poll. The others who won back-to-back titles and how they fared the next year (final ranking in parentheses):
Champion Years Next year
Minnesota 1940-41 5-4 (19)
Army 1944-45 9-0 (2)
Notre Dame 1946-47 9-0-1 (2)
Oklahoma 1955-56 9-1 (4)
Alabama 1964-65 11-0 (3)
Nebraska 1970-71 9-2-1 (4)
Oklahoma 1974-75 9-2-1 (5)
Alabama 1978-79 10-2 (6)
Nebraska 1994-95 11-2 (6)
Final AP poll
The Top 25 teams in the final Associated Press college football poll, with first-place votes in parentheses, records, total points based on 25 for a first-place vote through one for a 25th-place vote, and previous ranking:
No. School (1st-place) Record Pts. Prev.
1. Southern California (62) 13-0 1,622 1
2. Auburn (3) 13-0 1,559 3
3. Oklahoma 12-1 1,454 2
4. Utah 12-0 1,438 5
5. Texas 11-1 1,391 6
6. Louisville 11-1 1,261 7
7. Georgia 10-2 1,204 8
8. Iowa 10-2 1,111 11
9. California 10-2 1,060 4
10. Virginia Tech 10-3 996 9
11. Miami 9-3 917 14
12. Boise State 11-1 888 10
13. Tennessee 10-3 868 15
14. Michigan 9-3 842 13
15. Florida State 9-3 754 17
16. LSU 9-3 711 12
17. Wisconsin 9-3 482 16
18. Texas Tech 8-4 476 23
19. Arizona State 9-3 463 21
20. Ohio State 8-4 423 24
21. Boston College 9-3 314 25
22. Fresno State 9-3 203 -
23. Virginia 8-4 157 18
24. Navy 10-2 126 -
25. Pittsburgh 8-4 99 19
Others receiving votes: Florida 85, Bowling Green 74, Texas A&M; 29, Northern Illinois 27, West Virginia 26, Oregon State 17, Colorado 13, Connecticut 11, Purdue 10, Georgia Tech 6, Minnesota 6, Southern Mississippi 1, UTEP 1.